Resistance is not futile
Short stories, as I find myself repeatedly telling myself, are a slightly unsettling read. It’s to do with the variable length of reading time. A short can be just too short, and if you read several by the same writer in fairly quick succession, there can be a sense of ‘here we go again’ as a writer’s pattern repeats.
And so I found here, with Sillitoe. In some ways, to my taste, this collection would have been better served by having fewer of the ‘stories in the middle section’ The first, ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ is a marvellous novella, rather than short story. It is full of bitter, angry realism, a heady mix of despair, resignation and empowerment. It was of course also made into an iconic film of the 60s, part of the New Wave of Cinema – which included the film of another Sillitoe book, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
The central character of the title story is a troubled, disadvantaged young Nottinghamshire teen, doing time in a Borstal, after he was caught with the proceeds of a robbery – in a scene which mixes dark humour with pathos. The story, told in the first person is imbued with a sharp, intelligent sense of the unfair nature of an unequal society.
Smith did not have the chances, due to poverty and deprivation for any kind of better life (the book was published in 1959) Petty crime offered glamour, excitement – and food on the table.
In his time in the Borstal, the superficially progressive prison governor discovers that Smith has a rare talent for running, and when a cross-country running competition is set up against a prestigious school, the prison governor sees glory for himself and his running of his Borstal, in pitting his prize boy against the elite. For Smith, the buzz, the graft and the drudgery of daily training offer a meaningful solitary time for expansive, curiously transcendental thought, bringing him to a wider consciousness of himself and the system he is caught within
Although the ending of the story is never really going to be in doubt, once the reader sees how Smith’s process of analysis is going, it is gloriously satisfying.
Sillitoe himself came from precisely the same kind of background as the characters in this and the other stories in the collection. What I like is the sense of fire and spirit, the individuality and humanity in his characters, despite the fact that life does what it can to grind this down and away. He neither patronises, pities, indulges or allows his characters to indulge in ‘poor me misery’ in the best of the stories.
Of the shorter stories, I found ‘The Fishing Boat Picture’, the story of a mismatched marriage between a bookish postman who liked a quiet life and the ‘big-boned girl yet with a good figure and a nice enough face’ whom he marries rather in haste, followed by the inevitable joint repentance at leisure, a particularly strong one. The twist in the story is not a twist of event, rather, one of dignity, sensitivity, tenderness and emotional refinement inside what seems like unpromising, wasted lives
I was also moved by the sad pathos of ‘Uncle Ernest’, a lonely man who, through pity, forms a friendship with two manipulative young girls. I think a modern writer would have done something more sensationalist with this, and maybe, in the light of recent events, the idea that there can be innocent friendships is something which gets more cynically viewed.
Some of the later stories (when I had got the measure of the writing), such as ‘On Saturday Afternoon’, where the narrator, a young boy, assists another typical Sillitoe loner in his suicide attempt, just because he (the boy) was feeling ‘black and fed –up because everybody in the family had gone to the pictures’ seemed a little contrived, an attempt, curiously enough to lift with mordant humour, a darkening collection.
However, the very different end story absolutely raised the game again for me. ‘The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller’. This is either a more fully autobiographical story, or a story where the writer wants us to believe in its autobiography, as the narrator in this is a writer called Alan, originally from a background of poverty and deprivation, whose success as a writer has taken him out of class, out of background, and into a much more gracious life, now in Majorca (Mallorca) . Sillitoe did indeed live for several years in France, Spain and specifically in Mallorca
In this endpiece story, quite different in tone to the earlier pieces, the theme is that of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ The writer muses of a life formed through a passion for books, reading and writing. His relationship to them is ambivalent, they are :
Items which have become part of me, foliage that has grown to conceal the bare stem of my real personality, what I was like before I ever saw these books, or any book at all, come to that. Often I would like to rip them away from me one by one, extract their shadows out of my mouth and heart, cut them neatly with a scalpel from my jungle-brain. Impossible. You can’t wind back the clock that sits grinning on the marble shelf. You can’t even smash its face in and forget it
The writer, in his present, is taken back in time from the aural equivalent of Proust’s madeleine – the song of the cuckoo, into a flooded, present remembrance of himself, earlier in life, and tells the important story of Frankie Buller, who he was, who he was for Alan, and the moment when life paths diverge.
We were marching to war, and I was a part of his army, with an elderberry stick at the slope and my pockets heavy with smooth, flat, well-chosen stones that would skim softly and swiftly through the air, and strike the forehead of enemies
The gathering up of Sillitoe’s time and place in this, as stages of his life are weaved into and out of, is wonderful.
I was offered this as a digital copy for review, by Open Road Media, a States based company who bring many ‘gone out of print’ writers from earlier in the twentieth century, back into circulation. They are meticulous (not all digitisers are!) in producing versions which read seamlessly and cleanly on ereaders
This particular version is not the one available in the UK, I have linked to the UK ‘available on Kindle’ which was an earlier publication. The stories are the same, and in the same order, but the UK Kindle and USA Kindle (Open Road) contain different afterwords, by different authors. Open Road’s version has an afterword by Sillitoe’s wife, Ruth Fainlight, a writer herself, and photographs